The Politics of Large-scale IT Delivery: 10 Keys to Success

When speaking about business, the term “politics” is generally a negative term, as in saying that some party is “just playing politics” rather than attending to authentic business concerns. However, business is a human endeavor and people are, as Aristotle pointed out, political animals. In this article, Nationwide SVP and CIO Dan Greteman explores an aspect of large-scale IT delivery beyond just the technology: the politics of people and how they interact.

(Rollout phase of Space Shuttle launch, photo credit: NASA.)

Large-scale IT delivery brings teams together to accomplish a critical business outcome.  How teams find ways of working with each other toward a desired outcome – delivery – are impacted by the social dimension of politics.  Successful political activity of this sort is essential in large organizations in general, and for the success of large-scale IT delivery, in particular. Thus, any checklist of success factors for large-scale delivery must explicitly address the political dimension.

Just as in the world in general, politics within a large insurance organization can be dysfunctional.  But in a healthy organization pursuing a large-scale IT delivery, politics are about how leadership and diplomacy play a vital role in producing the desired outcome.  Large-scale IT delivery has many facets, many interested parties and many social roadblocks related to communication and morale.  How leaders navigate through the “people” aspects of delivery programs can mean the difference between success and failure.

There is no substitute for a leader’s grasp on the vital technical issues of a given initiative, but the higher up one gets in the chain of command, the more important the qualities of leadership and diplomacy become.  A senior IT or business leader must understand the technical dimension (and the risks it comprises) and the social dimension, which includes building trust, communicating clearly, understanding communication issues between subordinates and departments, anticipating conflicts, rewarding successes, responding to failures, and keeping the entire team focused on the common goal with a high level of esprit de corps.

Here is a checklist for large-scale IT delivery that takes the people/political dimension into account:

  1. Get the Math Right – Don’t underestimate the importance of doing the “dirt work” to ensure that the math is correct in detail. People are more likely to support a leader if an effort is perceived as fair.  Accurate math helps to ensure fairness and assists in setting expectations. Leaders should constantly watch the interplay across scope, schedule, staffing, cost and quality.  Actively working the math and recognizing what levers to pull when will increase the likelihood of an on-time delivery.
  2. Be a Good Parent – As a leader, trust is critical.  Think about who you trust the most.  In my case, that is my Dad.  Growing up, I always knew that my Dad had my back.  I knew that when I did well, he would be pleased and would recognize me.  Equally, when I messed up, I knew that he would kick my backside.  Consider the power of having a leader who has your back – both in good and bad times.
  3. Listen to the Right Folks (Many Interested Parties) – Be smart about who is on your executive and operating steering committees and hold them accountable.  Fill your steering committees with key representatives and ensure they represent their entire area.  They have a job to do and you need them to do it.  Getting leaders involved and asking them to weigh in on solutions can reduce the likelihood of a latent veto.
  4. Take Care of Your Team – Leaders are only as successful as their teams.  Take care of your team, and they will take care of you.  It starts with vision.  In the early stages of a large-scale IT delivery, consider the power of taking your team into the future and having them look back upon a successful effort.  Give them your vision.  Help them understand that their resume will be stronger from their involvement on your program.  Recognize common events that happen in almost every large-scale IT delivery (e.g., hardware is ordered too late, leadership changes take place, funding gets cut).  Let them know that you are thinking about common pitfalls and will address them before they become roadblocks.
  5. Modify Behavior – Sometimes those interested parties I noted above will support you and sometimes they won’t.  Make sure you thank them and recognize them in public when they do support your efforts.  When they do not support you, speak with them in private to discuss why it is in their and the business’ best interest to do so next time.
  6. Make the Train Leave the Station on Time (Decision Velocity) – Actively communicate and hold to decision dates.  How you manage – people across the dimension of time does matter.  Put in place recommendations and share that you will default to the recommendation if folks do not respond.  Being active in communication of timelines and providing leaders with adequate time will assist in moving the ball forward on schedule.
  7. Act as One Team – Many large programs require team augmentation due to size and schedule.  Never allow any team to remove focus from the outcome. Keep everyone focused  ̶  there is no time for us versus them.
  8. Give Recognition – Consider the power of recognition during and after the successful execution of a large-scale IT delivery program.  I would imagine that, like a big military program, there would be the equivalent of battlefield promotions over the course of a large-scale initiative; as well as appropriate elevations after the program concludes.  So take care of the troops and the politics will follow.
  9. Improve While You Do – Consider how an investment in delivery carries the responsibility to improve how you deliver, while you deliver.  Instill a sense of continuous improvement in your team.  The behavior of strengthening your delivery skills while delivering will pay dividends on future releases and programs.
  10. Have Some Fun – By the nature of a large-scale IT delivery effort, there is plenty of work to complete.  Ensure that you balance the hard work with some fun.  Work hard and play hard.  Fun can become the pressure valve that enables the team to survive during stressful times.

Large-scale IT delivery includes many people constituencies, including senior leadership – folks on the team and not – and internal and external support.  How you navigate these people and the politics can and will make a difference.

Leadership and diplomacy play a vital role in producing the desired outcome.  Consider this checklist as you start a large-scale IT delivery effort.

Dan Greteman // Dan Greteman is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer for the Nationwide's Allied Group of companies, including Allied, Scottsdale, Titan and Nationwide Agribusiness, which distribute predominantly on an independent channel and wholesale/broker basis. Greteman has worked in the technology field for more than 27 years and has been at Nationwide since 2004. Upon joining the company, he served as the IT Delivery Executive responsible for architecting and delivering a multi-year, post-merger integration program to improve alignment between Nationwide and Allied commercial lines products, business processes and technology platforms across channels, reducing cost and facilitating geographical expansion. Prior to Nationwide, Dan spent his career at Accenture in their Communications & High Tech division where he became a partner in 2000. During this time, he gained diverse experience in sales, relationship management, telecommunications, IT operations and program management disciplines.

Comments (2)

  1. Diana – thanks for your comments and aligned experience. It sounds like you have dealt with similar large scale deliveries. Set them up correctly and they are much easier to lead. Good luck on your next one. Dan

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences Dan. I find time spent on creating a shared vision of success up front supports (point 7) a one team approach and reduces the risk of (point 5) buy in issues to earn trust (point 2). This facilitates co creation approach right from the start to achieve ownership of agreed milestones (point 6) and verification of mathematical projections (point 1). Ensuring team visibility of celebrated KPI success (points 8 & 10) and reinforcement of a shared learning CPI culture (points 3,4).
    Best wishes
    Diana Davidson.

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